This article was published on June 6, 2013

Don’t believe the hype: Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘sharing economy’

Don’t believe the hype: Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘sharing economy’
Milo Yiannopoulos
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Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos is founder and editor-in-chief of The Kernel. Milo Yiannopoulos is founder and editor-in-chief of The Kernel.

Editor’s note: Milo Yiannopoulos is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Kernel and yesterday he gave a talk at LeWeb London entitled “Why the Sharing Economy is Bollocks.” It certainly proved a divisive argument and today he’s summed it up in this politically-charged post. Think he’s gone too far or missed the point? Maybe you agree with him? Leave a comment and let us know.

I believe the sharing economy is rooted in ideology that runs utterly contrary to human nature, entrepreneurship, free-market capitalism and even common sense. What’s more, the expression itself does not survive the most cursory scrutiny.

Airbnb is a great business, by some metrics, but what it offers is not “sharing”. Strictly speaking, it’s buy-to-let for short-term rents. Uber is the same: it may be making a market more efficient, but no one runs a cab because they’re an altruist. None of the car rental services are “sharing” either: they’re rental. You pay and you drive. If it doesn’t work, you call the company and complain. This is not sharing.

Nor is the sharing economy an “economy” either. It might even be the opposite: the “locust” behaviour that products like Groupon encourage brings promiscuous customers and encourages them to be even more promiscuous. Central tenets of small to medium enterprise – loyalty and repeat custom – cannot survive in the locust economy. And the number of people able and willing to fill the void left by mom ‘n’ pop bed and breakfasts that will be driven out of business by Groupon is minuscule.

The sharing economy is dangerous. There have been [editor’s note: isolated] cases where Airbnb has put prostitutes and drug addicts in people’s living rooms. Car sharing services allow people to drive unlicenced or uninsured because keycards can be shared between friends (this is a looming PR disaster waiting to happen – we’ll see it first on the continent, in cities like Berlin where car-sharing penetration is higher than in London). I hate to say it, but regulation and licensing are there for a reason, and the hotel industry has learned over many years and many hideous accidents what short-term private landlords never will and Airbnb has an incentive to ignore.

Bad politics

The sharing economy is bad politics. In fact it’s shot through with loopy left-wing politics and Western guiltmongering. It has so much political baggage it might almost have been dreamt up in the comment pages of the Guardian. We’ve been told by lefties in the media for years that we consume too much, and those of us living privileged metropolitan lives are encouraged to sneer at the hapless trailer trash who can’t say no to supersizing their Big Mac Meal.

We’re told we should be living more austere lives, sharing our possessions and consuming privately, if at all. Sorry to be rude, but: fuck that.

I wonder how many people in the booming economies of China or India lie awake at night, desperately wringing their hands with anxiety over their supermarket purchases, wondering if someone can assuage their guilt by offering a sharing platform for washing powder? The truth is that the sharing economy is simply an extension of Krugmanesque, New York Times windbaggery. This is society in decline, eating itself, crippled by the politics of posture.

After all, the sharing economy only works for rich people. If you believe the hype, you might think that Airbnb and other property loan services are radically transforming the concept of personal property. That’s mostly spin – at least for now. In truth, travel and high-value goods are a luxury for the middle classes. In order to have a surfboard, or to borrow one, you have to be a surfer. The last time I checked, people trying out Airbnbs can well afford hotels. It’s a novelty, not a necessity.

Sharing initiatives and communitarian, collaborative consumption systems are not new. But they have never been self-sustaining. Either they never achieve critical mass because the economic incentives for participants aren’t there, or they’ve been supported until their eventual collapse by the government – or, in our case, venture capitalists.

Those who run the sharing economy are not sharing their wealth

There’s always someone – generally the organizer – scraping off more than they ought to. Those who run the sharing economy are not sharing the wealth it creates for them, that’s for sure. Eventually, participants in such systems realise this and stop playing the game because they think they’re being screwed. For more evidence, consider the Soviet Union. These are not models – economic or moral – that feisty, free market startups should be emulating.

The sharing economy is also emasculating, dispiriting and demotivating, because property rights are the basis of our society and the sharing economy fails to respect how much of our identity we invest into the things we buy. When we make big purchases, we are engaging in a process of consumer choice that advertises to the world who we think we are, what our aspirations are and how we would like to be considered by others.

Sharing the results of those purchases devalues our personal investment to the point of irrelevance and robs brands and consumer products of the ability to reflect something about their owners’ identities.

So a “you can have it all” attitude to high-value goods not only encourages the same dirigiste Brussels entitlement culture that the welfare state does, discouraging aspiration, it also robs us of the ability to discover, design and express ourselves properly through the things we own and the spending decisions we make.

A cult

The sharing economy sounds alarmingly like a cult. As with so many buzzwords and movements in technology – big data, transparency, open data and, oh dear God, “lean startup” – when you drill down into the detail you find little of intellectual or economic substance and much that derives directly from the marketing departments of rapacious and structurally unsound companies like Groupon.

When something becomes a dogma in the tech industry, it’s a red flag for free thinkers. The problem with the sharing economy being waved through as doctrine is that it comes loaded with political baggage that is antithetical to the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship.

I strongly object to the social pressure it generates, too: being made to feel selfish or wicked, just because you don’t feel like throwing open your home or giving away everything you’ve worked hard to achieve. Call me selfish, but I work hard to provide nice things for my family and no, I don’t want strangers touching them. In that, I believe I am in the majority.

The best things in life can’t be shared with strangers

In any case, the best things in life – that is, the experiences we’re prepared to overpay for – can’t be shared with strangers. Children, pets, holidays – in fact, all the things we’d pay most to have, to secure or to improve are immune from the charms of sharing. Look at the success of startups like GetYourGuide in Berlin and you realise that the trend toward beautiful, bespoke, personalised experiences and products is what normal people want.

The sharing economy is the latest example of “sharing gone mad”. It’s a terrifying development: just as we were getting over having our private lives public and permanently online, suddenly the demands made against our privacy are encroaching on our physical space and our possessions too. This is more intrusive and more oppressive than any snooping government. It’s the private sector saying: we don’t just own all your personal data on the internet, but we want to cream a percentage off the things you own in private, too.

Having private cognitive and physical space is essential to good psychological hygiene. But our safe spaces are being eroded all the time, which is why this new movement unnerves me so much. And far from being the latest, opportunistic capitalist fad, I find its philosophical underpinnings to be an ugly throwback to the dark days of socialism.

Image credit: Håkan Dahlström / Flickr

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